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Life cut short by war inspires new gift for clinical education

Photo by Courtesy of Cynthia Livingston
Peter Livingston, of the School of Medicine’s Class of 1963, died in the Vietnam War. On the occasion of the 50th reunion of his class, his widow, Cynthia Livingston, has endowed a fund to support the teaching of clinical skills.

In memory of a spirited young School of Medicine alumnus who died in the Vietnam War just as his academic career was about to begin, clinical-skills teaching at the School of Medicine has received an unprecedented boost.

To mark what would have been her late husband’s 50th medical school reunion, Cynthia Livingston, M.A.T., has made a gift of $580,000 to the medical school to establish the Peter B. Livingston, M.D. ’63 Fund for Excellence in Teaching, the first School of Medicine fund dedicated to teaching and mentorship in clinical skills. Income from the fund will support faculty efforts to create clinical-skills curricula and to mentor students as they develop those skills.

“Peter had a good experience at Yale, and I’ve always wanted to honor his memory,” says Cynthia Livingston, who earned her Master of Arts in Teaching at Yale in 1963. “I know that Yale places great emphasis on the basic sciences in medical education, which is a wonderful thing, but I just want to make sure that the clinical side of things has its own support.”

Born in 1937, Peter Livingston died on November 19, 1968 after months of providing psychiatric care to soldiers at a division-level hospital at Long Binh Post, a major command center for the U.S. Army. He had been about to join Cynthia and their baby son for a leave in Hawaii when his helicopter was shot down.

His wife’s gift honors a man whom his friends say was broadly educated, energetic, and warm—and one who had the makings of a dedicated teacher himself. Livingston majored in English at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., where he wrote and published poetry. In medical school, full of what his friend and Yale alumna Sharon Meltzer M.A., Ph.D., calls “nervous keenness,” he was profoundly influenced by the ecumenical approach to medicine championed by Frederick “Fritz” Redlich, M.D., then chair of the Department of Psychiatry. Livingston took graduate seminars at Yale in philosophy and ethics and greatly admired the university’s legendary chaplain, William Sloane Coffin Jr.

For his psychiatry residency, Livingston went to the Massachusetts Mental Health Center (MMHC) in Boston, where he taught Harvard medical students with enthusiasm, recalls School of Medicine classmate and fellow Harvard resident James S. Dalsimer, M.D., now a psychoanalyst in Boston. MMHC’s overall learning atmosphere was “a treat beyond treats,” says Dalsimer, and it was there that Livingston published his first two papers and decided to pursue schizophrenia research.

But while still a resident, Livingston was drafted into the Army. Though Livingston opposed the Vietnam War, says another medical school classmate, Herb Meltzer M.D., who is now a research psychiatrist at Northwestern University, he took his deployment gracefully. “He mastered whatever feelings he had about the bad luck he had in being sent over there,” says Meltzer, “and did the job he was supposed to do.”

Much of that job involved teaching, and Livingston wrote to his wife about the daily teaching marathons he undertook in the Army hospital. “He said by the end of these things he’d be hoarse but happy,” recalls Cynthia. While still in Vietnam, he was accepted as a fellow at Cambridge University, where he planned to continue his studies of schizophrenia. He was preparing a third paper on psychosis at the time of his death. Had he lived, says Meltzer, “I would imagine Peter would have been a professor of psychiatry at a leading medical school.”

If so, he might have found it challenging to find time to teach clinical skills, as many practicing physicians and researchers do. The new Livingston Fund is expected to relieve some of that time pressure.

“We’re very grateful to Cynthia, especially for her appreciation of the effort that’s involved in teaching mentoring and curriculum development, and the importance of attention to clinical skill-building in the education of future physicians,” says Deputy Dean for Education Richard Belitsky, M.D., a psychiatrist and Harold W. Jockers Associate Professor of Medical Education. “It is through her generosity that our faculty will have the time and resources needed to design and implement innovative approaches to clinical education.”

That’s just what Livingston is hoping for. A retired teacher herself, she has fond memories of joining her husband to hear superb discussions at Grand Rounds while he was in medical school. And their son, Oliver M. L. Bacon, M.D., M.P.H., who graduated from Yale College in 1988 and from the School of Medicine in 1996, is now a clinical faculty member at the University of California–San Francisco.

“As medicine changes in the 21st century and becomes a little more abstract, I think the clinical skills that are passed on are still really important,” Livingston says. “Freeing up some time for teaching clinical skills is essential.”